Chef Talk: Turkey Sanity by Robin Nathan

 Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  It’s all about family, friends, food, and gratitude – a combination that’s hard to beat.  With one possible exception… roasting the turkey. How can one successfully roast this holiday classic without being accused of turkey-cide?

 

For years I have experimented with different methods.  One year, I butterflied the turkey (sometimes known as “spatchcocking” ), a simple process of cutting out the turkey’s backbone and flattening the bird in an effort to reduce cooking time.  Bad move.  It wasn’t until after I had removed the backbone and flattened the turkey that I realized I didn’t have a pan big enough to accommodate the sprawling bird other than a sheet pan.  Please believe me when I tell you that you cannot successfully roast a 13 pound turkey on a sheet pan without starting an oven fire and setting off every smoke alarm in your home.

 

Other attempts, perhaps less dramatic, include flipping the bird from back up, to breast up, half way through the process to insure a juicy breast – messy and not particularly effective; and brining – a step that is easily avoided by shelling out a few extra bucks for a kosher turkey (which is brined as part of the koshering process).

 

Chef Robin’s Herb Roasted Turkey (12-14 Pounds)
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For the Butter
  1. 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  2. 3 cloves garlic, minced
  3. 1 large handful mixed herbs, minced (thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley)
  4. sea salt to taste
  5. 1 12-14 Pound Turkey, giblets removed
  6. sea salt
  7. 2 yellow onion, quartered
  8. 4 stalks celery, halved
  9. 4 carrots, halved
  10. 1 cup water or chicken broth
Instructions
  1. Make the butter by combining all ingredients in a small bowl. Following the directions in the above article, place the butter beneath the skin of the turkey’s breast. Rub any remaining butter on the turkey and sprinkle with additional salt and pepper. Place the half the vegetables inside the turkey’s cavity. Place additional vegetables on the bottom of the roasting pan. Pour the broth over the vegetables in the bottom of the pan. Place the prepared turkey on top of the vegetables.
  2. Place the turkey in a preheated 400 oven and roast, undisturbed until the breast registers 160. Pour in up to another cup of broth if the vegetables on the bottom threaten to burn. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and let rest 20 minutes. Take the temperature of the thigh. If below 175, cut the breast from the carcass and set it aside, and return the dark portion to the oven until it reaches 175. Carve both and serve with gravy made from drippings, if desired. It will take approximately 1 ½-2 hours to reach 160 if the turkey is unstuffed and you do not open the oven door to baste. Now relax and enjoy the holiday!!
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What makes roasting a whole turkey so darned frustrating in the first place?  The biggest obstacle to overcome is that the dark meat is considered “done” at 175-180° and the breast is done at 160°.  The other complicating factor is that the turkey must rest, depending on its size, for 30-45 minutes, which will allow juices to redistribute and keep you from frying your hands while you try to carve it.  Another complicating factor is stuffing.  I highly recommend NOT stuffing the turkey.  First, it’s a health hazard, as stuffing must cook to a different internal temperature (165°) than either the breast or the dark meat, and just as importantly, significantly increases the roasting time.  What else significantly increases cooking time?? Basting.  Please stop basting that turkey.  Basting does not add flavor or moisture to a turkey – nothing is getting through that skin, believe me, and all you are doing is reducing your oven’s temperature by 50 degrees every time you open that darn door. 

 

So what’s the answer/answers?? Here’s what I recommend.

First, consider purchasing turkey parts.  If you are cooking for a large group, especially a group that has preferences of dark meat or white meat, and it’s not important for you to show off a whole bird, buy one or two breasts and enough drumsticks and thighs to satisfy your group.  This will allow you to start the dark meat first, giving a head start to 175, and pop the breast in about 30 minutes later.

 

Second, make a flavorful compound butter to put BETWEEN the turkey’s flesh and skin.  Mix room temperature unsalted butter with your favorite fresh or dried herbs, a drizzle of maple syrup or a squirt of sriracha if that’s your thing.  Slide your hands carefully between the turkey’s flesh and breast skin, breaking the tiny tendons that hold it in place.  Scoop up some of the butter on a spoon, lift the skin and slide in the spoon, using your fingers on top to slide the butter off.  Smoosh it around to flatten it and keep going until you’ve created a large pancake of butter on both sides of the breast.  Rub any remaining on the skin.  This will flavor and moisten the breast.

 

Third, if you must roast a whole turkey, do not stuff it or baste it.  Use a probe thermometer (which snakes through the oven door and beeps at the temperature you’ve set) inserted into the thickest part of the breast.  BREAST, not thigh.  Roast to an internal temperature of 160.  Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest 30 minutes, keeping an eye on the internal temperature of the thigh.  After the turkey has rested 15 minutes, if the thigh meat is below 160, cut the breasts from the turkey and return the dark meat to the oven until it’s reached 175, which won’t take but 15-20 minutes longer.  You can pump up the oven temperature if you like – it’s impossible to dry out dark meat.

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